A discussion came to my attention in which a number of people were debating whether, kabbalistically, the threes in tarot are higher than the eights. In particular, the person posing the question wondered why the Three of Pentacles often shows a master craftsman, such as in the Rider-Waite-Smith or Robin Wood decks, and the Eight of Pentacles shows an apprentice. This person thought that since eight is a higher number, or because eight is closer to ten, which in many numerological systems indicates completion, that the eight should show the more advanced artist. Although this may be the case in some numerological systems, it isn’t true in kabbalah.
In order to understand the intricacies of kabbalistic numerology, it’s important to know that kabbalah is replete with paradoxes. Yes, it’s true that in kabbalah the tenth sephirah, Malkuth, represents the Kingdom, completion and manifestation. But what’s not true is that correspondingly the first sephirah, Kether, represents rudimentary beginnings which reach their culmination at Malkuth. Rather, kabbalah works from the top down—Kether is the first emanation of the unmanifest, the first opening from the Divine into our world of comprehension. Kether is the closest to G-d that we can conceive of, and at the same time, Kether is also considered beyond our comprehension, only available to us as if we were seeing it reflected in water.
Kether means Crown. Similar to the royal headgear, it is not part of the King, nor is it part of the Divine, but it symbolizes the link between the King and the power that divinely inspires him. Chokmah, Wisdom, is the second sephirah and emanates from Kether, and Binah, the third sephirah, Understanding, emanates from Chokmah. Emanate means to arise from a source, and each sephirah in turn arises from the preceding sephirah. Kether is the beginning in time of that which is beyond time, having no beginning or end. From that first emanation of light, Chokmah rushes out as a powerful and directed force. Binah is the receptive principle which receives that force, giving it the form and limitation that puts it to use. Dion Fortune compares the interplay of Chokmah and Binah to a combustion engine, in which Chokmah is the fuel which provides the energy and Binah the piston which harnesses the explosive force and channels it to produce the work of the machine.
Together, Kether, Chokmah, and Binah comprise the three Supernals, the three sephiroth closest to the Divine and furthest from our capacity for comprehension. Below Binah is a symbolic veil of separation called the Abyss. Below the Abyss begin the seven lower sephiroth which we can understand and which have direct correlations to the human experience. Malkuth is the lowest and last sephirah to manifest, so it is the furthest from the Divine spark of Kether. However, holding with the paradoxes of kabbalah, it is said that Malkuth is the Kether of a new Tree of Life, and the lowest emanation of this series becomes the highest emanation of the subsequent series.
An important concept to keep in mind in order to understand the process of manifestation is that of relative polarity. Each sephirah is considered negative to the sephirah above it and positive to the sephirah below it. Each sephirah is also assigned a negative and positive polarity based on its static position on the Tree. So, Chokmah is on the positive pole in terms of its static position, and is relatively negative, or receiving, in comparison to the energy of Kether, and positive, or directing, in terms of its relation to Binah. Binah is on the negative pole in terms of its static position, and relatively negative in relationship to Chokmah, but positive in relationship to Chesed.
Furthermore, a positive sephirah is well-dignified when acting with relative positivity and ill-dignified when acting with relative negativity. And vice-versa for the negative sephiroth. Binah, on the negative pole, is well-dignified when it is in its natural state of receptivity, receiving the emanation of Chokmah. But it is ill-dignified, going against its natural tendency to receive, when it must direct energy down past the Abyss to emanate Chesed. This is absolutely key in understanding why Malkuth, at the bottom of the pile of emanations, is not representative of perfection, even though it represents completion.
To put it another way, Chokmah is well-suited for sending out energy and Binah is excellent at receiving—it can take in everything Chokmah can send out. But Binah is not good at sending, and something is lost as the energy takes the next step down to Chesed. Chesed is naturally on the positive pole, so it is not good at receiving what Binah sends out, and like a game of Divine telephone, the transmission becomes garbled. This happens multiple times in the process from Kether down to Malkuth. Malkuth can never fully and perfectly reflect the spark of intention that originated in Kether, and although it has the honor of being that which is manifest in the world of the physical, it is never perfect.
So in the kabbalistic process of manifestation, the eights of the tarot, which are positioned at the eighth sephirah Hod, will correspond to an energy that is eight steps away from Kether. They have lost much of the Divine perfection as the energy steps its way down the Tree.
The threes on the other hand, are much closer to the Divine, above the Abyss. Since they are associated with Binah, they are excellent at receiving and are very open to the spark of Divine inspiration.
It might be useful to compare the Three of Pentacles and the Eight of Pentacles with Mozart and Salieri as characterized in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus. This allows us to examine one other kabbalistic philosophy—the idea of the Path of Creation and the Path of Redemption. In the path of Creation, the Divine energy descends in a Lightning Flash path down the Tree touching each sephirah in order. This process represents the descent of the Divine and is associated with enlightenment. The Path of Redemption is the path of the serpent, and climbs the Tree via the navitoth, or the twenty-two paths that link the sephiroth. This is our path of reaching up towards the Divine, and is the path of the student. Salieri was heartbroken that as much as he reached up towards the Divine, he could never touch the highest realms, whereas the crass and disrespectful Mozart simply received unrestricted the inspiration of G-d. Mozart worked at the level of Binah, the master craftsman, in direct touch with the spark of the unmanifest; he received the perfection of G-d without diminution. Salieri was the student, reaching ever upwards towards G-d, but never able to fully receive the Divine influx.
If you would like to explore where you are currently in your relative polarity—your ability to receive from above and manifest out into the lower realms, try my tarot spread Relative Polarity.
Joy Vernon is a Certified Professional Tarot Reader and Reiki Teacher in Denver, Colorado. Her specialty is the Empyrean Key Transformational Guidance, which combines energetic and esoteric modalities to help her clients break through blocks and align themselves with their higher purpose. For information on upcoming classes or to schedule an appointment, please visit JoyVernon.com. If you are interested in learning more about kabbalah and tarot and are in the Denver, Colorado area, please join the Denver Tarot Geeks on Meetup.
© 2012 by Joy Vernon. All rights reserved.
Joy Vernon is widely recognized by tarot professionals as an expert tarot teacher and respected community leader. With over twenty years’ experience teaching energetic and esoteric modalities, Joy brings expertise and practiced familiarity to her specialty of esoteric tarot, which layers astrological and qabalistic symbolism onto the traditional tarot structure. Under her leadership, the Denver Tarot Meetup has grown into one of the largest and most active tarot-specific meetups in the world. Joy works as a tarot reader, astrologer, and teacher at Isis Books. To learn more, please visit JoyVernon.com.